Aphelion Issue 219, Volume 21
July 2017
 
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The Missing Bag

by J. Alan Brown


Morgan Jefferson burned his throat when he gulped down his mouthful of coffee. He couldn't help it--as Security Director of the Houston International Air-and-SpacePort, he had to take any reports from his Assistant Director about a bomb seriously.

"A bomb? Here? Where? How do you know?"

Allyson Foster's eyes went wide at his intensity. "We don't know where, but I'm almost certain of it," she said in his viewscreen. "A family of Sneakers came through this morning headed for Space Station Diversity. They had five carry-on bags, but the shuttle manifest indicates they exited with only four, plus their checked luggage. Somehow they've left a bag behind somewhere."

Morgan tried to calm his pounding heart. It wouldn't do to appear panicky. "So they lost a bag. That's nothing unusual. We have thousands of bags misplaced every year."

"Well, they didn't report a missing bag when they docked at SSD, and I took the liberty of conducting a quick search. So far no missing bags have been found this morning. And after what happened last month, I thought ... "

Morgan nodded. A shuttle headed for Diversity had exploded, the twisted work of an eco-terrorist group. 37 people dead. That incident cost Morgan's former boss her job and had allowed Morgan to slip into her place. He had come to the position with a firm vow that nothing like that was going to happen on his watch. Perhaps Allyson was thinking this situation could be her chance to get a bigger office.

"All right, Allyson. Where are the Sneakers now?"

"That's part of the problem. They are already on board a Sneaker ship, headed for their home system."

Morgan groaned. Once the Sneaker ship undocked from the space station, it was out of Earth's jurisdiction. "Have you tried to contact the Sneaker's ship?"

She shook her head. "Docking officials at Diversity said that by this time all the passengers and crew are in hypersleep, with the ship itself on autopilot. They'll be woken automatically when they reach their system, but that won't be for several weeks."

"Even if we could catch them," Morgan mused aloud, "we'd have a huge mess on our hands without hard evidence. Plus we'd need a Presidential mandate, ratified by Congress, before we could board a non-Earth ship."

No, the Sneakers were gone. All that could be done now was to contain the damage, if any.

"Give it to me straight, Ms. Foster," Morgan said with a serious look. "What is your professional opinion?"

She stiffened, but she maintained the formality. "Mr. Jefferson, it is my professional opinion that a bomb threat is very likely and that we should activate a Level Six response."

Morgan took a deep breath. It was almost noon on the Friday before Memorial Day. Close to two hundred thousand individuals would be passing through his buildings that day alone--almost a million over the long weekend. Shutting down HIASP to search for a bomb would cause total havoc. Everyone would be forced to leave the building and gather outside into a swollen mass. Dozens of planes and shuttles would have to be rerouted, leaving many stranded at other airports. When the alert was over, thousands of people would come pressing in, asking the same questions: Where's my plane? Where's my luggage? What do I do? Lines of irritated people would snake around corners and double and triple back on themselves. Vouchers for hotel rooms would be demanded and refused--there was no way all could be accommodated. Entire families, from senior citizens to infants, would have to sleep on the floor. Vacations would be ruined. Business deals would fall apart like dusty cobweb. Millions of dollars of revenue would be lost. If this was a false alarm, the lawsuits would go on for a decade.

Morgan absorbed this horror in an instant. His hands shook at the thought; his mouth went dry. Then he thought of another scene. He thought of a terminal, crowded but with purpose; people milling about, some casual, others hurried and stressed. Then, from a cardboard box in a corner or a discarded backpack comes a flash of white heat. A concussion of pain rips into all directions. Men are blasted into bloody chunks. Women are tossed aside, crushing the babies they hold against concrete walls and hard tile floors. Fire spreads from person to wall to furniture to person. People trample their coworkers to escape the flames in their hair. Ceilings collapse, crushing those below. Choking smoke spreads, filling lungs, snuffing lives.

Morgan wiped his eyes painfully. Looking back at his monitor, he nodded haggardly. "Agreed. You get started on the procedures. I'll call Clem for confirmation and get back to you."

Morgan tabbed a button. "Greg, get me Kendrick right away. Max priority."

"Sure thing, boss," replied Greg Avedun, Morgan's secretary. "What's up?"

"Just get him," he snapped. "Allyson's gearing up a Level Six; support her however you can. And get hold of Dr. Anthony Chambers. He'll be in my address book. He'll know me; tell him that if he's in the city I need him out here as soon as possible."

"Right ... I've got Mr. Kendrick on one. He's calling you, actually."

Morgan sighed, then he steeled himself. "Send him through."

On Morgan's monitor appeared a black man with short gray hair. "Jefferson," he barked. "What is going on? What's this about a bomb?"

How did he hear so quickly? "It's not confirmed, Mr. Kendrick, and it's probably nothing. I've taken the liberty of a few prelim security measures, but as the CEO of HIASP, a Level Six will have to be your call."

"Evacuation!" Kendrick spat. "Are you crazy? It's a holiday weekend! Do you have any idea of the financial impact that will have?"

"Yes, sir, but my staff and I believe it's necessary. We don't want another April Fool's."

Kendrick looked lost and frustrated. "I'll want to check with the board--"

"Sir, we don't have the time. I need to get moving now if we are going to minimize this."

Now it was Kendrick's turn to look haggard. "All right, Jefferson. Do it, but so help me if you're wrong about this ..." Morgan stiffened in his chair. "I'll contact the Mayor," Kendrick continued, "and Governor Flores. Be sure to get Shanda to prepare media statements." Kendrick stared hard at Morgan. "You just find that bomb, Jefferson, and quickly."

####

Morgan exited his small office into the larger general office. Already his staff was frantic with activity. Phones blared for attention, unanswered. A lean man with thinning black hair approached him.

"Bomb squad's on their way. Houston PD will be here for crowd containment. Word is spreading but no one's panicked yet. Security teams have simply been put on general alert, no specifics."

"Thank you, Greg," said Morgan. "We've got the word. Tell Allyson to go to Level Six. Start getting everyone out of here quickly. Send an extra team to the areas where the Sneakers were this morning. She should have that information. How long until we can get scanners onsite?"

"They confirmed less than twenty minutes, although they might get caught up in the general mayhem. Even the service entrances will be crowded."

"Do what you can. Just get them to work."

Greg stepped away and murmured into his headpiece. Morgan deflected a few questions from other staff and strode over to a large map of the 'port tacked to the wall, concentrating on the areas the Sneakers would have most likely been. Mentally tracing a path from the SSD shuttle ticket counter to the gate itself, Morgan groaned when he realized that a missing bag could have been dropped anywhere in roughly half of the entire complex.

Greg stepped up again. "Ms. Foster's on it. Things should be getting hairy fairly soon. I've also gotten in touch with Dr. Chambers at home. I've got a car going out for him, but he probably won't be here for a couple of hours. Is he important?"

"He's an old colleague," Morgan explained, "and he's a xenobiologist. He's been studying Sneakers since they first arrived here. I want to hear his opinions on the Sneaker mind--what they're thinking, why they would do this--"

He paused, and everyone in the room looked up as the broadcast speaker blared three tones loudly. A stern male voice spoke. "Attention! Attention! Due to a security violation, everyone must leave the building. Please exit out the nearest door--" The message continued, then repeated in Spanish and Japanese. Morgan mentally blocked out the noise until Greg used a remote to turn down the volume on the room's speaker.

"All right, people," Morgan bellowed. "We've got a lot of work to do." The reality of the situation settled into his dozen staff members, and they looked at him as if clinging for support and direction. "Split yourself up into teams and get out there. Start herding people out of the building. Don't answer questions, and do not mention the word 'bomb.' I want some of you to start checking the shuttle terminals. Look for suspicious packages, bags, whatever. Do not touch anything until the bomb crews get here. Just mark them and keep everyone else away. You will be signaled when you can leave the building yourselves. Move, people!" With panicky looks on their faces, Morgan's team began moving out, clinging to their orders for security.

"Greg," Morgan continued, "you get the fun job. I want to talk to every person that had contact with the Sneakers this morning. I don't care how innocent it might be. Where did they check their bags? Who screened them through security? Did they buy a hot dog or a magazine? Get their shoes shined? No, I don't know if they wear shoes--just get on it! Also get any video clips of them as they made their way through here. I'll set up at the old office in Building D. Have everyone you find assemble there for me to question. Time to earn your paycheck, Greg. Get me?"

####

Morgan exited his office, took a deep breath, and plunged into chaos. The PA still squawked: "... please exit out the nearest door and ..." The tinny voice echoed harshly in the open terminals. The cacophony of voices washed over him. Most people he could see were shuffling down the corridor, clogging up at the doorways, but no one was happy about it. Despite his warning, he heard "Bomb!" uttered time and again; given the climate after the April Fool's Disaster it was inevitable. He saw a girl, maybe five years old, standing with tears streaming down her red face, screaming for her lost mother. Soon she was lost in the crowd. Everywhere he turned people seized upon his uniform and peppered him with questions, demands.

"What's going on?"

"What about my luggage?"

"I have GOT to get to Atlanta this afternoon!"

"When will United 385 get here?"

"Has there been another bomb?"

"I left my video camera back there. Can I go get it?"

Morgan stiff-armed each question with a gruff, "Exit the building, NOW!"

####

The silence of the empty office was a relief. Morgan had barely made it out of the main terminal and scooted over to Building D in a golf cart. The team had reassembled in the old offices they occupied before the new terminal had been built. The main room was dusty with disuse, but the old furniture was still serviceable. Smaller offices lined one wall, and Morgan commandeered his former office, the one he used back when he was Associate Director. Greg had dusted off a table and arranged some chairs; Morgan lowered himself into one gratefully. It was almost 1:30 P.M. and somehow Greg had arranged for sandwiches, coffee and sodas to be delivered. Morgan was on an audio-only phone with Clem Kendrick.

"Yes, sir. The main terminal is nearly empty. Everyone's milling out in the parking lot at a safe distance. Bomb squads are on the scene and they've got scanners pouring over the place ... so far nothing. I'm about to conduct interviews with the employees who had contact with the Sneakers this morning-- No; I don't know what we will find, sir. That's why I'm questioning them ... Yes sir, as soon as we can confirm or deny a bomb, we will be back open for business ... No sir, I don't know how long it will take--we are doing everything we can. Of course, sir." Morgan slowly, gently cradled the phone and then slammed a fist into the table.

Greg cleared his throat. "First up is the shuttle flight attendant that the Sneakers were on, Mr. Jefferson. Sheila Jenkins."

Morgan inhaled deeply then let it out slowly, bringing himself back into control. "All right, Greg. Show her in."

Greg escorted a thirtyish female with short, mousy-brown hair to a chair, then he sat off to one side. Morgan glanced at her once then jotted on a notepad. She wore the crisp, professional uniform of United Shuttles and her eyes were wide and nervous.

"You can relax, Ms. Jenkins, you are not in any trouble. My name is Morgan Jefferson, Security Director of HIASP. Do you know why you are here?"

"Um, well sir, I'm not sure," she said, her voice quivering. "We were docked with SSD when we received word that something was going on down here. We were scheduled for about a three-hour layover up there, but the pilot said he received orders to undock immediately and get back here, no passengers. When we landed twenty minutes ago, I was told to report here immediately."

"Ms. Jenkins, as I'm sure you've heard, we are dealing with the potential of a bomb threat, and we believe it may be the work of Sneakers."

"You mean the ones on the shuttle this morning?" she asked, leaning forward.

"Yes. I take it you remember them."

"Well, sure, I've never waited on Sneakers before. This is the first time I've even seen one in person, although Margie says she's been on flights with them a couple of times. In fact, she's--"

"Thank you," Morgan cut in. "What do you remember about the Sneakers this morning, Ms. Jenkins?"

####

Well, I do declare! Are they who I think they are coming aboard?

Sheila couldn't help but grin as she looked down at the three individuals. The tallest was no higher than her waist. The second was slightly smaller, stouter. The wider hips and slender neck made Sheila guess her to be female. The third was a head shorter and looked more youthful.

"Hello, I'm Sheila. Are you going to be flying with us today?" she asked in wonder.

The first one scowled his bushy eyebrows at her and blinked his enormous eyes. He uttered something, a harsh, grating sound. Then his lips tightened and he fiddled in his hip pack. Pulling out a small device in his long-fingered hands, he held it to his mouth and spoke again. This time, Sheila heard a metallic voice.

Of course we are, you foolish female human. Why else would we be here?

"Oh," she said with a start. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend, I just--"

Where do we sit? the alien barked.

"Well," she flustered. "Well, if you'll show me your seat assignments--"

The female quickly held up three cards and gave a small snort. She did not bother to translate and Sheila did not want to know.

"All right, the three of you are in the third row, here." She directed them down the aisle and showed them their seats. The male looked at them with apparent disgust.

Can't you make these things at a proper height? he said with a glare. He stepped aside and let the smallest one--the family son, perhaps--enter the row first to sit by the window. The child undid a large brown beltpack and placed it under his seat, then climbed up, seated himself, and stared out the window.

"Well, we don't get travelers of your type very often, you know." Sheila's surprise and excitement was quickly dissolving into stiff professionalism. She had dealt with surly passengers before--short ones made no difference.

The female Sneaker undid her own beltpack and levered herself up into the seat with the help of her mate. She clutched her bag in her lap.

"You'll have to store your bag under your seat, please."

Sheila was rewarded with a rude glare. The Sneaker scooched her way back out of the seat, shoved her bag under, and then worked to climb back up again. She belted herself in and helped the son to strap in also. The male Sneaker unfastened his belt pack, but also removed a black shoulder bag. He tried to cram both bags under his seat to no avail.

"I'll put one of those in the overhead compartment for you, sir." Having done so, she watched with a small pleasure as the alien had difficulty scaling the seat. She put a hand under his elbow to steady him and was surprised to feel a cool stiffness in her fingers. He seated himself and yanked his arm away from her hand roughly, then proceeded to belt himself in.

The training videos never mentioned them being so rude!

####

"Just a minute, Ms. Jenkins. You said the child had a carry-on, the female had one, and the male had two. Are you certain there were no other bags?"

"Well, sure I'm sure. They had three under their seats and I put the one overhead."

"And when you arrived at Diversity, did they take all four bags with them?"

"Well, they must have," she said. "I was busy with the docking door, but after everyone was off I checked the compartments and didn't find anything."

"How did the alien get the bag out of the overhead compartment?"

She shrugged. "Well, that's not hard. We're in free-fall up there, you know. He could have floated himself up and gotten his own bag."

Morgan nodded, embarrassed at his landside bias.

"In fact," she added, "I'm almost certain they had all four bags when I saw them exit the shuttle. Rude little buggers."

"Thank you, Ms. Jenkins, you may go now, although I may want to talk to you later." The woman rose and Greg showed her to the door, then he returned and sat back down.

"Sounds clear so far," Greg said. "Space Station officials say the Sneakers boarded with four bags, total weight of 9 kilos. Sounds like they had the four bags when they boarded the shuttle."

Morgan nodded. "Which means the fifth bag went missing between the time they obtained their tickets and when they boarded the shuttle. Whose next?"

Greg looked at his datapad. "Tony Rodriguez. He's the gate agent that validated their tickets before they boarded the shuttle."

"Good," Morgan said. "Let's continue to work backwards. Go get him."

Greg returned with an average-sized Hispanic wearing a short, military haircut, which emphasized his protruding ears. His manner was cool, but his eyes showed the strain of dealing with hundreds of demanding questions during the evacuation.

After Morgan introduced himself and explained the situation, he began the questioning. "Mr. Rodriguez, do you recall the Sneakers' departure this morning?"

"Yes, sir," the young man said, his Spanish accent barely noticeable. "This is only my third week here. I've seen them on TV before, but I've never seen any up close."

####

Wait until I tell the guys about this! thought Tony.

Tony Rodriguez had been preparing the thirty-odd passengers for boarding the shuttle to SSD. He stood at the terminal gate and mechanically checked tickets and compared IDs before allowing passengers to board the shuttle. When he saw the Sneakers get in line, he wished he had brought his camera to work.

"Good morning!" he said. "May I see your tickets and passports, please?"

The Sneaker scowled. He handed over the tickets, then dropped his shoulder pack to the floor. He rifled through one muttering to himself. The child stood near what was likely his mother and stared with huge eyes at the people around them. She patted his hand soothingly; no doubt they were accustomed to people staring.

The male Sneaker stood back up and shoved three passports up towards Tony. He waved the tickets under a barcode reader, then inspected the passports. He couldn't help but grin as he looked at the small photos. All three Sneakers had enormous eyes, and wore their black hair slicked back over their heads, although the females' was longer down her back.

I had no idea they were so small. They're like little kids.

I suppose you find our countenances amusing.

Tony looked up sharply to see the male glaring at him. He was holding a small device in front of his mouth, and his words came out metallically.

Tony handed back the ticket stubs and the passports quickly. "You're seated in seats 3A through C. Enjoy your flight."

The Sneaker handed the ticket stubs to the female, shoved their passports back into his pack and threw it back onto his shoulder. After tossing an untranslated blchh at Tony's direction, the male Sneaker led his family onto the rampway to the shuttle outside ...

####

"And exactly how many carry-on bags did the three Sneakers have with them, Mr. Rodriguez?" asked Morgan.

"Uh, well. The kid had a belt pack, his mom had one too. The dad had the belt pack and the shoulder pack. So, four, I guess."

"Are you certain, Mr. Rodriquez? It is absolutely important for you to remember correctly."

"Yes, I'm sure. The belt packs were brown, maybe leather. The guy's shoulder pack was black, though, and big for such a little fella. No, I'm sure they only had four bags. Why?"

Morgan ignored the question, continuing to make notes on his pad. "Thank you, Mr. Rodriquez. You may go now. We will let you know if we need anything more." Greg escorted the young man out.

Morgan sucked a lip in thought. "If he's correct, then the fifth bag must have been dropped before they entered the rampway."

"So far everyone has said that the Sneakers were mean and nasty," said Greg. "Do you think that means anything?"

"I don't know. I've heard they don't like the attention they get when they visit here. We've seen enough of them pass through, but to the public at large they are still something of a novelty. When Doctor Chambers gets here, I'll be sure to ask him that. Who's next?"

"One of ours," said Greg. "Works at the Security gate that the Sneakers passed through. He says he hand-checked their bags."

"Good. Show him in."

Sam Brown was a tall, thin black man with short hair. Morgan could see he was nervous, probably intimidated by the big brass.

"Mr. Brown," said Morgan, "I recognize your face, but I'm glad to make your acquaintance. I want to talk about the Sneakers that passed through your station this morning. Do you remember them?"

"Sure do, sir. I've seen them come through in ones or twos, but this was the first I've ever seen a whole family of them. I don't know if this bunch has been here before, though. They all look the same to me."

"Did they act suspicious in any way?"

####

Sam Brown bumped the elbow of Davids next to him and pointed with his chin. Three Sneakers were loading their carry-on bags onto a conveyor belt to be X-rayed. The male and female were scowling at people milling about them who were cooing and pointing. The child was holding tightly to the female's hand. One woman held out a potato chip toward the little alien. The child merely stared with his bulbous eyes. A camera flashed, which made the child blink rapidly. The mother moved her body between the child and the crowd, meanwhile working to take the child's pack off for the conveyor belt.

"Time for a spot check," Sam said with a grin. Daniels smirked knowingly.

The Sneakers had passed through the metal detectors with no trouble. Sam opted against wanding them; it would be hard to justify searching them for hidden weapons when the little runts didn't wear clothes.

"Jus' a minute, please," said Sam when the male Sneaker started to retrieve his bags. "I'm going to double-check your bags." He gathered up the bags with both hands and carried them to a table against a partition, away from the flow of traffic. The male chittered at his back, but Sam ignored the obvious protest and started rifling through each bag's contents. Inside were typical tourist items: maps, brochures, some plastic bags of what he guessed to be food of some kind. Gray, pulpish things. Snacks, maybe.

Before long he held up a strange object. It was shaped like a disk, smooth and gray, with a handful of buttons and a small display.

"What's this?" Sam asked the Sneaker.

The male spoke gibberish, then banged his fists together in frustration. Before Sam could react, the alien reached into his belt pack on the table and retrieved what looked like a calculator. The Sneaker held it up to his mouth and spoke again. It is a holographic recorder, you male human.

Sam knew when he was being insulted, but he'd received worse. "Let's see it work," he ordered.

The Sneaker squinted his eyes in anger again. Taking the recorder in hand, he pointed it towards an open area of the 'port terminal. Pushing a button with a long finger, the recorder hummed softly. Suddenly a glowing, colorful view of dusty brown plains shimmered before him, nearly reaching the ceiling. Few trees could be seen; only the occasional brush poked up above the pale, grassy plain. People in all directions stopped and gawked open-mouthed at the display, some waving their hand experimentally into the light. From Sam's viewpoint the hologram displayed perfect depth perception. He could see the caldera of an extinct volcano in the distance, framed against a blue sky. Sam recognized the isolated scene as belonging in West Texas.

Sam nodded, satisfied. "All right," he said, "you can take your things and go."

The three aliens gathered up their bags and shuffled off down the terminal.

####

"Why did you search their bags, Mr. Brown?" asked Morgan. "Did the X-rays pick up anything unusual?"

Sam grinned sheepishly. "No, sir. I guess I just wanted to see what kind of things they had. You know, being Sneakers and all." He sobered. "But I guess they could have had some fancy guns or something. Never can tell."

"I see. And tell me, Mr. Brown. Do you recall how many carry-ons they had?"

"Sure," Sam shrugged. "I searched each one. Four, all together. I think the guy had two, and the girl and the kid had one apiece."

"You are certain?"

"Yes sir."

"Did they act suspicious in any way?"

"Well, no more than people usually do. He was tough on me, but lots of folks are. S'no big deal."

Morgan dismissed the man and consulted his notes.

"Keep an eye on that one, Greg. I don't like the fact that he deliberately searched the Sneakers' bags looking for a thrill."

"Yes, sir," said Greg, tapping his pad. "We've got one more person that we were able to track down. Rhonda Masterson, United Shuttle. She worked at the ticket counter where the Sneakers checked in, and she checked three luggage items for them. She's the one who indicated that they had five carry-on bags."

"And Mr. Brown has stated that they only had four bags. As I recall, it's more than a hundred yards from that ticket counter to the security station."

"Right," said Greg. "I've got the bomb teams crawling all over that area--so far, nothing."

"Let's talk to Ms. Masterson."

Greg stepped to the door and escorted the woman in. She was tall and lean, with long, black hair tucked back over her ears. She looked in her mid-forties, but she also looked exhausted from dealing with furious customers. Morgan introduced himself.

"Ms. Masterson, do you recall the Sneakers that passed through your counter this morning?"

"Yes, there were three of them. A family, I presumed."

"Have you assisted Sneakers before today?"

"Once or twice. They have to go through us in order to get to Diversity and catch their own ships. Although today was the first that I've seen a family of them. Very nuclear."

"What do you remember about them? Anything unusual?"

####

Good Lord, thought Rhonda. Are they ALL this arrogant?

Her fingers clicked over the terminal keys efficiently as she processed their tickets. She glanced at the child; he seemed all right--quiet, almost respectful. What a pity he'll grow up to be like his parents.

The Sneaker requested three passenger tickets for the 10:00 flight to Diversity and paid with an International Account Card. Rhonda keyed the information and printed out the proper documents.

"If you'll just sign here please," she said, pushing forward a disclaimer form.

The Sneaker stared at the document closely, then fumbled in his hip bag for some sort of device. He scanned it over the form, and the reader magnified the words by a factor of five and, Rhonda presumed, translated it into his native language. He retrieved a writing utensil in his long-fingered hand and made a mark of assent.

"You have just the three items to check?" she asked, pointing to their large suitcases. She keyed the information into her terminal. Then asked them the same security questions that she asked all ticket purchasers. The Sneaker had to consult his handheld after each question, but he eventually answered her satisfactorily.

"All right," she said, "and how many carry-ons do you have?"

The male's face twisted into what Rhonda could only interpret as frustration. He consulted his handheld again, then held it up to his mouth and made a harsh sound.

Rhonda asked him to clarify, and the Sneaker's replied with the same buzzing noise.

Rhonda finally mimed holding a bag and asked how many carry-ons. This time the Sneaker seemed to understand, and he held up his hand, five fingers outstretched.

"Five bags, then. All right," Rhonda said and continued tapping keys.

####

"Just a moment, Ms. Masterson," said Morgan. "You said that they had five carry-on bags?"

"That's correct."

"Did you actually count the bags yourself?"

"Well, no. I never count carry-ons. Isn't that Security's job to check carry-ons for weapons and such?" Her breathing quickened and Morgan saw her cheeks begin to flush. "Besides," she continued. "It's rather difficult to see what Sneakers are carrying since they are so short. His eyes barely came up to the counter edge."

"You count the checked luggage, don't you?"

"Of course. I have to prepare transit tags for each one, weigh them. What does that have to do with carry-ons?"

"Why ask about the carry-ons at all, then?"

"I have to," she said, her voice rising. "On the screen is a field for how many carry-ons each passenger had. I have to enter something, even a zero, or else the boarding pass won't print."

"You printed out a boarding pass for each Sneaker, didn't you?"

"Of course."

"Well, how many carry-ons did you indicate for each passenger?"

"Two for him, two for her, and one for the child."

Morgan shared a significant look with Greg. At that moment a knock was heard at the door. One of Morgan's staffers stuck her head in.

"Dr. Chambers has arrived. We're shuttling him over here," she said quickly.

Morgan nodded. "Thank you, Ms. Masterson, you're free to go, but I may have further questions for you later."

She stood stiffly, as if in a formal court, and walked quickly out the door. Morgan sighed heavily and pinched the bridge of his nose.

"They show up with five bags, and in a few minutes manage to lose one, and we've not been able to find it. In the meantime, the busiest airport in the world is shut down because of one short, arrogant, alien!"

A knock on the door interrupted Morgan. Allyson Foster, his Associate Director, leaned her head in. "We've got video monitors set up out here, Morgan."

Morgan and Greg stepped out of the small office back into the larger room. Three video monitors were side by side on a table, each one displaying various areas of the port from overhead views. One young woman was fiddling with a laptop computer networked to the three monitors and the video storage server in another building. From here, she could easily manipulate the day's surveillance videos on any screen.

"I looked at some of these while you were conducting your interviews, Morgan," said Allyson. She made a wry face. "I'll admit, we don't have much to work with. Scan back to the point where the Sneakers boarded the shuttle, Lisa."

Morgan watched the screen on the left flash rapidly, then suddenly focused on one scene. The camera's viewpoint was high, looking down from behind over the left shoulder of the boarding agent. Morgan recognized the protruding ears of Tony Rodriguez, and he could see the faces of the three Sneakers clearly.

Allyson continued. "Pause it, Lisa. Here you can see the four bags. The male is carrying two, and the female and child each have one."

Morgan peered at the monitor closely. "The female's left side is blocked by the male Sneaker. She might have another hip bag there. Do we have any better angle?"

"Yes. Lisa, pull up the side view at the same point in time."

The young woman typed rapidly, and on the middle monitor the same scene displayed, except from further back and to the left of the boarding gate. Morgan could clearly see Tony in discussion with the male Sneaker. One step behind him was the female Sneaker, and it was clear that she had no other bag in her possession.

Morgan nodded. "All right, Allyson. This proves that Mr. Rodriguez was correct, and that they definitely boarded the shuttle with only four bags. Do we have any other video of the Sneakers?

Allyson gave a tight smile. "A few things, but nothing else so clear as this one. Given that the Sneakers are so short, most video shots are lucky to capture their faces, let alone any bags they might be carrying. At the time, the cameras were on general surveillance mode. Had we known something would be happening, we could have zeroed in on them with much better resolution, followed their every move. As it is--" She shrugged.

Morgan sighed and nodded. The strain of the day was getting to him. The 'port had been shut down for nearly three hours now, and they were no closer to getting any answers.

"What about at the ticket counter? Based on the statement of the ticket agent, they had five bags when they purchased their tickets."

Lisa was already panning through the video logs to find the clip in question when Greg touched Morgan's arm. "Excuse me, sir, but Dr. Chambers is here now."

Morgan looked up and saw a gentleman enter the room, escorted by one of Morgan's staffers. The man wore a thick beard with a shock of graying hair, and his eyes went wide at the bustling activity. His sport coat was wrinkled as if slept in. When he saw Morgan, his eyes crinkled in a smile and he reached with outstretched hands.

"Morgan Jefferson, I don't envy you right now. I heard about the mess in the car on the way out here, and let me tell you, it's a zoo out there."

"I know," said Morgan heavily. Morgan made brief introductions to Allyson and Greg. Then he summarized what he had found out in the interviews.

"So we suspect they dropped a fifth carry-on bag somewhere shortly after they checked their luggage, but the bomb teams haven't found anything yet."

Dr. Chambers shook his head. "Well, I don't know if I will be able to help you, but I would be extremely surprised if the Sneakers planted any bomb. As a rule they aren't violent, although they will strongly defend themselves if attacked."

"Why have they been so difficult to deal with?"

"Oh, that's just their temperament," he said with a wave. "It's the Houston humidity--they can hardly breathe out here. But they have to pass through our city to get out into space. They far prefer the dry climate of the Southwest. I wouldn't pay much attention to their rudeness. After all, when they are here, we treat them like zoo animals."

"Given my lack of leads," said Morgan, "I'm beginning to think this may have been a colossal mistake. As much as I want to avoid a disaster, at this point I almost feel like I have to come up with something--anything! If I don't find a missing bag, I'll have my head handed to me on a platter."

"Hold on, Morgan. Perhaps we've been too hasty," said Dr. Chambers. Morgan swallowed a comment about how it wasn't the good Doctor's responsibility to ensure the safety of thousands.

"You said," continued the doctor, "that the Sneakers arrived with five carry-on bags, and quickly lost one. How sure are you that they actually arrived with five bags?"

"Well, the ticketing agent, Rhonda Masterson, said they had five bags."

"Did she actually count them?"

Morgan consulted his notes. "No," he said with pursed lips. "She said they were too short to see what they were carrying." Dr. Chambers nodded in understanding. "But she asked them how many carry-ons they had and the male indicated five."

Dr. Chambers latched onto that with intensity. "He actually said they had five bags?"

"I suppose so. Look, we've got the video of their exchange right here."

Lisa had already completed finding the video in question. The middle monitor changed to another scene in the 'port. Again the view was high and over the left shoulder of Rhonda Masterson, allowing a clear view of any passenger standing before her. At normal speed the video began advancing. Morgan saw Ms. Masterson assisting with a middle-aged couple, and standing directly behind them were the three Sneakers. The male leaned his head to the female and spoke something.

"Have we got audio of what they're saying?" asked Morgan.

Allyson shook her head. "The microphone only picks up any conversation with the ticketing agent. The Sneakers are too far back in line to be heard."

"I still can't see how many bags they've got," Morgan said. "I see the three checked pieces, but the other couple is blocking the view. We still don't know how many carry-on bags they have."

"Forward it to the Sneaker's exchange, please." asked Dr. Chambers.

The video blurred forward until the three Sneakers were in front of Ms. Masterson's counter. At that point they were within the audio feed's range, and Lisa increased the volume output.

"...have just the three items to check?" They watched Ms. Masterson prepare luggage tags for the three checked items. She continued in a monotone voice. "Now I have to ask you some simple security questions. Have your bags been in your possession at all times upon reaching the 'port?"

The male Sneaker frowned and inspected a hand-held device for a long time. Finally he held it up to his mouth and said, Yes.

"Are you carrying any items of any kind on behalf of anyone that you do not know?"

Again the Sneaker consulted his device, and he answered, No.

Morgan felt déja vu watching the video, since he had visualized this scene already based upon his questioning of Ms. Masterson. So far her story checked out completely, but Morgan still couldn't see how many carry-on bags they held. "Do we have any other angles on this scene?"

Allyson shook her head, and they continued to watch the video.

"...and how many carry-ons do you have?" she asked as she tapped data into her terminal. Morgan leaned forward.

The Sneaker puzzled over his hand-held again, then spoke again. This time it came out as a harsh, Yrrch.

"I'm sorry. How many?"

Yrrch!

Ms. Masterson shook her head. "I'm sorry, but I'm not understanding your translator. How many carry-ons?"

The Sneaker made a sour face and stared at his device. Finally, he gave up and shook his head exaggeratedly.

Ms. Masterson mimed holding a bag in her hand. "How many bags will you be taking onto the shuttle?"

Now the Sneaker seemed to understand. He held up his hand outstretched before her.

"Five bags, then. All right," she said, continuing to fill in data fields.

"Freeze!" shouted Dr. Chambers. "Stop the video!"

"What is it?" Morgan asked.

"Rewind it to the point where the Sneaker held up his hand and pause it again." Lisa did so. They all saw the alien's long-fingered hand held before him, indicating five carry-on bags.

Dr. Chambers sighed heavily. "Call off your search, Morgan. There is no bomb here, or anywhere in your building."

Morgan stared. "What do you mean? Where's the fifth bag?"

"There never was a fifth bag, don't you see? Look at it this way. Why do you think that humans have always dealt with Base 10 counting systems?

Morgan gave him a blank look. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"You know, we all count by tens, we column up numbers with tens, hundreds, thousands. Why ten?"

"I suppose it's because we have ten fingers. Seems easier that way."

"Precisely. Now suppose I told you that the Sneakers use an octal counting system, meaning Base 8? It's difficult for humans to work with naturally, but the principles are the same. When we count, we start with 0, 1, 2 and so on until we reach 9. Then we move to ten, which is actually using the one and the zero again and we start through the litany of numbers again: 11, 12, and 13.

"But Sneakers count differently. They start with zero, then one, two, three, all the way up to seven. But instead of using eight, or nine, they begin again with ten, then eleven, then twelve. When they reach seventeen, their next number is twenty, and so on. So where you or I would count 1, 10, 100, 1000, a Sneaker counts 1, 8, 64, 512. So, tell me, Morgan, if we use Base 10 because we have ten digits, why would the Sneakers use Base 8? Do you know?"

"Spare me the campus lecture, Doctor," Morgan said with mild scorn. "You want me to say it's because the Sneakers only have eight digits, four on each hand."

"And you would be exactly correct, sir, if you said that."

"But they have five fingers on each hand!" Morgan roared. "Look for yourself," he said, pointing to the frozen video frame. "You can clearly count five fingers! And what does all this have to do with a missing bag?"

"That is where you, the ticket agent, and most of humanity have erred when it comes to the Sneakers. You see, Sneaker arithmetic was not based on the number of fingers they have, as ours was. It was based on the number of spaces between their fingers. You might think you are looking at a Sneaker holding up the number 'five' on his hand. He is actually holding up the number 'four.' He has indicated that they have four carry-on bags, and that is all they have ever had."

Morgan dropped heavily into a chair.

"I suggest," said Dr. Chambers dryly, "that you call off the bomb search and get that airport back open quickly."

Morgan nodded, pale as a sheet. "Greg, call off the Security Alert, now. Allyson, get Shanda to announce to the media that the bomb threat was a false alarm and that everything will be back to normal. I'll call Kendrick and let him know I dropped the ball on this one."

And you, Allyson, can start measuring your new office, I'll wager. I suppose I could still have a future in shopping mall security.

"Thank you for your assistance, Dr. Chambers," Morgan said stiffly. "Let's go, people. We are going to have one big mess on our hands."

THE END


© 2007 J. Alan Brown

Bio: J. Alan Brown has published dozens of stories in print and around the web, including Aphelion (most recently At the Tone, June, 2006).

E-mail: J. Alan Brown

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